The Wee Free Men / A Hat Full of Sky

Wee Free MenJust a week after deciding she wanted to be a witch, nine-year-old Tiffany Aching had her first chance to test her powers when she spotted a group of six-inch-tall men being chased up the river by a green-haired creature with sharp teeth. Using her younger brother Wentworth as bait, she lured the creature into her path and knocked it out with a frying pan. Tiffany would have no such ridiculousness on her farm. And when her brother is later kidnapped by a fairy queen, Tiffany is determined to get him back, not because she likes the sticky little annoyance, but because he is hers and the queen has no right to take him.

Tiffany’s practical, no-nonsense attitude is one of the things that makes these books great fun. She’s willing to roll along with events, no matter how outrageous they seem, but when she decides something needs correcting, she won’t stop. Her adaptability enables her to get along with the Nac Mac Feegle, the thieving fairies who claim “Nae king! Nae quin! Nae laird! Nae master!” She doesn’t necessarily approve of their thieving, but she recognizes their sense of honor and sees that they know things that can be useful to her. She also teams up with a toad who may once have been human and Miss Perspicacia Tick, a witch who discovered Tiffany’s talents when looking for a witch on the inauspicious chalk lands where Tiffany lives.

The story in The Wee Free Men, Tiffany’s first adventure, is extremely loopy. What logic there is in the plot is hard to find and follow. This is largely because so much of it takes place in the land of dreams, but I admit that reading this on a family vacation, when I was prone to nap and easily distracted by family chatter and activity, probably didn’t help. Still, I enjoyed the book for its characters and for Pratchett’s comic voice. Tiffany won me over early on in this dialogue with a traveling teacher she consults for information about the green-haired creature in the river:

“Hello, little girl,” he said, which was only his first big mistake. “I’m sure you want to know all about hedgehogs, eh?”

“I did this one last summer,” said Tiffany.

The man looked closer, and his grin faded. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I remember. You asked all those … little questions.”

“I would like a question answered today,” said Tiffany.

“Provided it’s not the one about how you get baby hedgehogs,” said the man.

“No,” said Tiffany patiently. “It’s about zoology.”

“Zoology, eh? That’s a big word, isn’t it?”

“No, actually, it isn’t,” said Tiffany. “Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short.”

Hat Full of SkySo I liked that Tiffany is something of a smart ass, and even if I found the plot of The Wee Free Men nonsensical, I liked her enough to read the second book, A Hat Full of Sky. In this book, Tiffany goes away for witch training with Miss Level, a witch who uses her power to bring aid and comfort to her neighbors, usually through such mundane activities as visiting and bringing by some extra food. It hardly seems like witchcraft at all, but in the world of these novels, witchcraft is really about seeing what is really there and responding. Some witches focus on spells and mysticism, but the great Mistress Weatherwax assures Tiffany that such activities aren’t the point:

Mrs. Earwig tells her girls it’s about cosmic balances and stars and circles and colors and wands and … and toys, nothing but toys!” She sniffed. “Oh, I daresay they’re all very well as decoration, somethin’ nice to look at while you’re workin’, somethin’ for show, but the start and finish, the start and finish, is helpin’ people when life is on the edge. Even people you don’t like. Stars is easy, people is hard.”

Even though the witchcraft in these books is focused on practical help, there’s no lack of magic. Tiffany herself has learned, all on her own, a spell that uses her gift of seeing to allow her to see herself. But that spell carries a danger that Tiffany is entirely unaware of. In this case, the magic takes advantage of Tiffany’s own insecurities, turning her worst self against her best self. Her friends the Nac Mac Feegles see the danger coming, and they act to help Tiffany.

The storyline of A Hat Full of Sky is more coherent than in the previous book. It helps that the main conflict involves a typical human problem, with the magical elements being a metaphor for our own moral dilemmas brought to vivid life. There are some baggy bits, particularly those involving an unlikely relationship that developed in between the two books. This relationship takes on greater significance than seems likely, given the characters’ actions and attitudes in the first book. And Tiffany’s memories of her Granny Aching seem muddled to me. I think that’s a mystery meant to continue throughout the series, however, so the confusion is intentional.

Tiffany herself, along with the Nac Mac Feegles and other characters, is what makes these books worth reading. Even if the plot doesn’t always make sense to me (and this may be my own fault), the characters are such fun that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself while reading these books. I’ve been interested in reading Terry Pratchett for years but hesitant because the Discworld universe is so vast, but this series, while part of the Discworld series, stands well enough on its own.

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14 Responses to The Wee Free Men / A Hat Full of Sky

  1. Lisa says:

    I find the first book a little confusing, but as with all the nautical details in Patrick O’Brian’s books, I read through them, focusing on the people. I really enjoy this series. As you may know, there’s another subseries with Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax as the main characters, with some of the same themes.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad to know that I’m not alone in finding the first book confusing. The characters more than make up for it, though, just like in the Patrick O’Brian books.

      I did know some of the characters appear in other books, but I didn’t know which ones. I don’t know if I’ll branch out beyond Tiffany Aching, but Granny Weatherwax is a character I’d like more of.

  2. Alex says:

    I found the first book so confusing that I’ve never gone on and read the second. I loved his series for children that began with ‘Truckers’ but this one didn’t have the same punch for me.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t know that I would have picked up the second if it hadn’t been one of the three books I brought on vacation. I’m glad I did because I liked it a lot more.

  3. realthog says:

    A good write-up.

    but hesitant because the Discworld universe is so vast

    No need to feel intimidated: the novels work as standalones. It could be an idea to start with one of the earlier ones — Mort or Guards Guards or <Hogfather — just to get yourself into the swing of things, but really it hardly matters where you plunge in.

  4. Stefanie says:

    I’ve heard these books are delightful but didn’t really know much about them. I do love Pratchett and now I see finally why I really should read these!

  5. I read The Wee Free Men as a concession to the many, many people whose reading tastes I respect who urged me to give Pratchett another try. But I dunno. He just is not for me. The funny bits always seem either lazily obvious or self-consciously wacky, and it bugs me. Alas, alas!

    • Teresa says:

      I think comedy is the hardest thing to do well in any kind of entertainment, mostly because people’s tastes are so idiosyncratic. I thought the Nac Mac Feegles were a hoot, but there’s lots of stuff out there that everyone else thinks is hilarious that I do not get at all.

    • Jenny says:

      I’d be curious to know if you ever read or enjoyed any Douglas Adams. It’s a somewhat-similar style of humor, but I like Adams better. (I enjoy Terry Pratchett, but only moderately and in small doses.)

      • Teresa says:

        I read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy several years ago and didn’t get what all the fuss was about. I enjoyed it but not as much as I expected to. These books seemed funnier to me, and the characters a lot more endearing.

      • Jenny says:

        I wonder if I’d have the same response if I read them today, instead of in college! A lot depends on context.

  6. aartichapati says:

    I love these books! I can completely understand the confusion with the plots. Often, I think I let plot confusion slide because I love pratchett’s characters so much. Tiffany’s interplay with the Mac Feegles is so great.

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